Score one for the House Ways and Means Committee’s pursuit of former President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued the unanimous 3-0 decision Tuesday, just one day after Trump’s residence at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida was searched for records. That search is believed to be part of a Justice Department-led investigation into whether Trump removed classified records from the White House in violation of the Presidential Records Act.
While the Justice Department pores over findings in that case and others ongoing related to Trump, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, U.S. Rep Richard Neal (D-MA), said Tuesday the audit process of several years of Trump’s tax returns would begin “immediately” once the files were received.
According to the ruling written by Senior Circuit Judge David Sentelle, the committee’s request was made under the color of law and was not a violation of the separation of powers, as Trump’s attorneys often alleged as they fought for over a year to shroud the returns.
Appeals Court Ruling HWC v Trump by Daily Kos on Scribd
Every president takes office with the understanding that they are subject to the same laws all other citizens are subject to once they leave office, Sentelle explained in the 33-page ruling.
“This is a feature of our democratic republic, not a bug,” Sentelle wrote.
The request did not impose on the sitting president, did not hinder Congress’s ongoing relationship with the president, and further, the burden was “not substantial,” the court found.
“Congressional investigations sometimes expose the private information of the entities, organizations, and individuals that they investigate. This does not make them overly burdensome. It is the nature of the investigative and legislative processes,” the appeals court ruled.
Neal first sparked the request for Trump’s tax returns in 2019 as part of the Presidential Audit Program. During Trump’s time in office, the Treasury Department refused to comply, prompting Neal to sue on the committee’s behalf, demanding that the Internal Revenue Service force compliance.
But while a decision was pending, President Joe Biden was elected, and the leadership roles changed at the Treasury Department. Neal followed up with his request last June, this time making the committee’s intent more clear: They wanted access to Trump’s tax returns so they could “prioritize legislation on equitable tax administration, including legislation on the President’s tax compliance, and public accountability,” court records stated.
Where a year earlier the Office of Legal Counsel had dubbed Neal’s request out of bounds, this time, it was deemed valid. Neal dropped the lawsuit against the Treasury Department, anticipating they would deliver as determined in court. Trump’s legal team tried to intervene, saying the requests from the committee spanning back to 2019 were all unconstitutional and a violation of Trump’s First Amendment and due process rights.
That argument was defeated in December 2021, when U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden found Congress was legally permitted to seek records that informed how the IRS might audit a sitting president and especially if it is done for the sake of legislation or to ensure funding of the Presidential Audit Program itself. McFadden is a Trump appointee.
In affirming the decision to distribute the returns to Congress, Sentelle dismissed Trump’s claims that the audit by the committee was only ever taken up to uncover criminal conduct.
“In determining the legitimacy of a congressional act, we do not look to the motives alleged to have prompted it. The Speech or Debate Clause [of the Constitution] protects against inquiry into the motives behind the regular course of the legislative process. It is not our function to ‘test the motives of committee members for this purpose.’ Their motives alone would not vitiate an investigation which had been instituted by a House of Congress if that assembly's legislative purpose is being served,” Sentelle wrote.
Where Trump should have looked to determine if the request was valid, Sentelle explained, was at the statutes empowering the chairman of the House Ways and Committee.
In 1974, when it become public knowledge that Nixon was not properly audited by the IRS, the Presidential Audit Program went into effect, mandating that every president has his returns scrutinized by the tax agency. That law hasn’t changed to date.
Because Trump was a “unique taxpayer” with returns that were “inordinately large and complex,” the committee was rightfully concerned that the audit program might not account for all of Trump’s vast business interests and activities, Tuesday’s ruling notes.
It continued: “In this case, the need for the Trump Parties’ information to inform potential legislation overrides the burden to the Executive Branch largely because that burden is so tenuous. Were Nixon v. GSA the appropriate test to apply in this situation, the Trump Parties have failed to demonstrate a burden that would outweigh the Committee’s need for the requested information.”
In a concurring opinion accompanying Tuesday’s ruling, Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft, an appointee of former President George H.W. Bush, said she agreed with the appeals court’s decision, but the ruling gave her slight pause.
Ultimately, she wrote, it was impossible to know the extent to which requests for Trump’s returns were motivated by his conduct in office or were “intended to influence” his conduct in office.
“It is not far-fetched to believe that such intrusive inquiries could have a chilling effect on a president’s ability to fulfill his obligations under the Constitution and effectively manage the Executive Branch,” she wrote.
Trump is expected to appeal the ruling, meaning it could make its way all the way to review before the appeals court's entire bench of 11 justices or to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A spokesperson for Trump did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.